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Digitization and Racialized Expropriation

In his American Periodicals article “Chronicling White America,” Benjamin Fagan discusses the cottage industry that has sprung up around the for-profit management of nineteenth century Black periodicals archives. He writes, “Those interested in researching, teaching, or simply reading black newspapers must climb paywalls of databases controlled by for-profit corporations.” Fagan identifies two basic problems that this for-profit siloing poses. For one, he attests, it limits possibilities for individual work on American Black periodicals: “My experience working at two flagship public institutions has shown that even relatively well-funded public university libraries will subscribe to one, and very rarely, two such databases.” Fagan implies that limitations around access disincentive individual scholars to analyze Black newspapers, a fact that presumably ripples into the available scholarship in the field. At least as importantly in Fagan’s analysis, uneven access to historic Black periodicals can program racial bias into large-scale digital projects, by skewing racial representation in the datasets they rely on. For an example, Fagan considers the Viral Texts project housed at Northeastern University, which studies ‘virality’ of nineteenth century news stories. Viral Texts uses datasets largely culled from freely accessible databases of periodicals; because, as Fagan identifies, most databases of Black periodicals are set up behind paywalls, the news stories contained therein are not represented. Thus, the Viral Texts project can be said to have whiteness programmed in. Or, to decenter whiteness in that formulation, the Viral Texts project unintentionally reifies the “erasure of black voices” from scholarship in American print history.

Fagan posits this as a technical impediment to digital work, and his article is largely a technical analysis. He does, however, lean on metaphor in his conclusion, writing “There is something particularly disturbing about the modern-day ‘capturing,’ buying, and selling of newspapers produced by and for black men and women who lived in a white supremacist country that equated blackness with chattel.” This important insight offers an invitation to think not only how the imposed limits act as an impediment to racial equity, but also how it came to be that archives of nineteenth century white periodicals are freely available, while nineteenth century Black periodicals are locked behind extortionate paywalls.

Black studies scholar Jackie Wang’s post-Marxist analysis of racial capitalism might be a useful to consider in this context. In Carceral Capitalism, Wang writes, “Rather than casting slavery and Native genocide as temporally circumscribed events that inaugurated the birth of capitalism in the New World (“primitive accumulation”), [scholars and activists have shown] how the racial logics produced by these processes persist to this day” (Wang, 115). Wang’s analysis of racial capitalism focuses partly on “racialized expropriation,” the process by which Blackness becomes a site for looting by the hegemonic capitalist state. To illustrate this idea, Wang provides, among other examples, an analysis of extractive policing in Ferguson, MO, prior to the unmotivated police murder of Michael Brown. Wang shows how police actively shored up the city’s austerity budget by extracting as much money as possible, in the form of fines, from Black citizens during forced police encounters. This sequence of events, from extractive policing to murder, shows, Wang writes, how under racial capitalism “Black racialization. . .is the mark that renders subjects suitable for—on the one hand—hyperexploitation and appropriation, and, on the other hand, annihilation” (Wang, 122).

Wang’s theory of Blackness as a site of hyperexploitation in a post-slavery, racial-capitalist United States might offer some insight into how and why records of Black history have come under private ownership and exploitative management, limiting liberatory possibilities in scholarship, while white history, at least in the form of nineteenth century periodicals, moves freely in publicly available digital archives.